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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Maker Hails Soy Sauce's Virtues

NODA, Japan -- The emperor's soy sauce is ready.

The beans have fermented a full year in huge wooden vats. Workers have strained the sauce by hand through pure cotton filters. Trained tasters have given their nods of approval.

Now bring a saucer of the amber liquid to your lips and see for yourself: a single drop fills your mouth with flavor. Hours later, the salty tang still lingers in your throat.

Soy sauce is just a seasoning for most. But at Kikkoman Corp. - the world's biggest producer - it's much more: A brew fit for gods, the backbone of East Asian cuisine, even a unifier of nations.

"We are selling soy sauce to 100 countries," Kikkoman president Yuzaburo Mogi said in a recent interview. "If people in the world have a common experience in food, they can be more friendly."

If there's any place suited to soy sauce hyperbole, it's Noda, a hamlet 35 kilometers north of Tokyo that has served as the center of Japanese soy sauce production for centuries.

The place lives and breathes soy sauce - literally. The thick aroma of fermenting soy beans wafts relentlessly over Kikkoman's factories; visitors are given white caps as protection from floating bean dust.

Here, soy sauce is described in terms usually reserved for aesthetic cults like the tea ceremony or cherry-blossoms.

"Soy sauce reveals a complex yet delicate world of taste," a promotional film at Kikkoman, which features atmospheric shots of waterfalls and close-ups of soy-sauce soaked meat, assures.

The pinnacle of Kikkoman's soy empire is "Goyogura," a special all-domestic batch brewed for the ultimate Japanese palate: that of the emperor himself.

The imperial sauce differs from the regular stuff in crucial ways. First, while sauce made from imported soy beans and wheat is good enough for regular folks, the imperial family's supply is brewed from purely made-in-Japan ingredients.

The two sauces go through the same initial mixing steps, but the imperial family's brew is moved in the middle of the process to a traditional, tile-roofed factory beside the Edo River. Swans taken from the imperial brood glide across a moat surrounding the building.

There the concoction is fermented the old-fashioned way: not for just six months in steel containers, but for an entire year in huge wooden vats, where it is stirred and then strained by hand.

Even for soy sauce neophytes, the difference is clear: the imperial brew delivers a powerful, full-bodied punch to the taste buds. The regular sauce is tame by comparison.

It's no surprise Kikkoman would take such pains. The "Goyogura" line started in 1939 - back when the emperor was still considered a deity under Japan's indigenous Shinto religion.

"Workers here used to have to undergo ritual purification," plant manager Kunihiro Hashimoto explained.

The Japanese love affair with soy sauce began long ago.

Introduced from China some 500 years ago and adapted to Japanese tastes, the flavoring became indispensable by the 1600s. Everything from sushi to noodles, from tempura to teriyaki, has a dash of it.

Noda's main soy sauce families - Mogi and Takanashi - banded together in 1917 to form Noda Shoyu Co. Ltd., which then became the country's premier soy sauce producer. The company was renamed Kikkoman in 1980.

The result is the world's largest soy sauce producer. Net sales increased 7.1 percent in 1998 to 229.5 billion yen ($1.98 billion), and the company's Noda plants put out 1 million one-liter bottles of sauce every day.

Kikkoman's empire reaches far beyond Japan's shores. The company has factories in the United States, the Netherlands, Taiwan and Singapore, and is considering a new plant in China. The international focus is a matter of survival.

While consumption of straight soy sauce is dropping slightly in Japan, foreign sales are booming. Sales of Kikkoman sauce produced overseas surged 15.8 percent in 1998.

The international push is backed up at Kikkoman by a campaign to recast soy sauce's image abroad. In October, the company opened the Kikkoman Institute for International Food Culture.

The center is filled with books about the uses of soy sauce in, say, French cuisine. There is also a 17-volume collection of academic papers with titles like, "Iron-binding Activity of Soy Sauce."

Still, Kikkoman is mainly about one thing: selling. Even the emperor's brew is up for sale to commoners, though at 450 yen ($4.30) for a 250 milliliter bottle, it's four times the price of regular sauce.

"This is very expensive soy sauce," Mogi acknowledged.

"But everybody, if they pay, can enjoy the same taste as the emperor."